Sailing World - - Starting Line -

first time I ever spoke with Ed Adams, I lied. It was 1990, and I was ea­ger to get back into com­pet­i­tive dinghy rac­ing. I’d sailed in col­lege with Adams’ long­time Star crew, Tom Olsen, who sug­gested the Snipe. To make sure I got paired up with a good skip­per, Olsen told me to call Adams.

I was pretty in­tim­i­dated by the idea of cold-call­ing a re­cent Rolex Yachts­man of the Year, a name I rec­og­nized from the sail­ing mag­a­zines. I was also very, very hun­gry to go sail­ing — and this was my best lead by far. So the fa­mil­iar pre­dictabil­ity of Adams’ first ques­tion was re­as­sur­ing: “How much do you weigh?” “One-hun­dred twenty-five pounds,” I an­swered, hon­estly. “How tall are you?” Here was the pesky de­tail Olsen had warned me about: Adams would think 125 pounds was the per­fect weight for a Snipe crew, but he wouldn’t even con­sider me if I ad­mit­ted to my true height of 5 feet 2 inches. So I rounded up as much as I dared: “Five-four.” “That’s a lit­tle short,” he replied, adding, “might be OK if you hike hard.” Then he told me his wife Mered­ith had just given birth to their daugh­ter, Michaela, so he was look­ing for a crew him­self. But he wasn’t sure when he’d be fin­ished rig­ging his new Snipe. His words tum­bled out so fast, I could barely un­der­stand him. “I’ll call you,” he promised. Then he hung up. Un­like me, Adams didn’t grow up in a sail­ing fam­ily; he first turned to it as a way to prove him­self to his peers. When he was 10, he moved to a new neigh­bor­hood in East Green­wich, Rhode Is­land. As the new kid on the block, nat­u­rally he got picked on. Sail­ing be­came a way of deal­ing with it — a way to prove him­self in this lit­tle peer group of peo­ple who he met at the yacht club, in high school and then in col­lege.

Look­ing back now, he rec­og­nizes the chal­lenge of that child­hood re­lo­ca­tion as cru­cial to his de­vel­op­ment. “I meet par­ents all the time, and they al­ways ask, ‘How can I make my kid be the next Olympian, the next gold medal­ist?’ And I have to ex­plain that do­ing well in sail­ing is prob­a­bly 25 per­cent ath­letic abil­ity. And it’s prob­a­bly 25 per­cent prepa­ra­tion: tak­ing the kid to re­gat­tas, get­ting him good equip­ment, hir­ing him good coaches. And it’s 50 per­cent am­bi­tion and drive, which is not some­thing you can pur­chase.”

I might not be tall enough to be Adams’ ideal Snipe crew, but for­tu­nately I had enough am­bi­tion and drive to fol­low up that first phone call with an an­swer­ing-ma­chine mes­sage a few weeks later — and I was re­warded with a re­turn call from Adams.

“Want to go to a re­gatta this week­end?” he asked. Two days later, I found my­self shak­ing hands with him in his drive­way — and try­ing to stand ex­tra tall. As he pointed out the rig­ging de­tails of his brand­new Snipe, I was still try­ing to fig­ure out if the thing had a spin­naker (it didn’t). Then we hopped into his van for our first race of the week­end, an eight-hour drive to An­napo­lis.

In Adams’ world, driv­ing both to and from re­gat­tas is its own test of speed and skill, be­cause half-throt­tle—whether sail­ing, driv­ing, talk­ing or eat­ing — is not an ac­cept­able set­ting.

Adams has been sprint­ing to and from re­gat­tas since he first got his driver’s li­cense. As a teenager, he strapped his Laser on the roof and headed north for the 1974 Youth Champs at As­so­ci­a­tion Is­land, a for­mer YMCA camp where the U.S. Sail­ing Team trained for the 1976 Olympics in Kingston, On­tario. It was a 45-boat re­gatta for qual­i­fy­ing. He won the re­gatta, which, he says, was a big deal at the time: “I wasn’t just this hack from East Green­wich any­more.”

A year later, he re­turned to “Ass” Is­land for the Laser Na­tion­als — and won that too. That qual­i­fied him for the Laser Worlds in Kiel, Ger­many, which would lead to his first air­plane ride — and a bronze medal, be­hind another Amer­i­can named Ed (Baird) and a New Zealan­der, Barry Thom. Back home on Nar­ra­gansett Bay, Adams be­came such a dom­i­nant pres­ence at the top of the lo­cal Laser fleet that a com­peti­tor is said to have named his own boat “Back Eddy.”

At re­gat­tas, Adams slept in his car, or pitched a tent, as most sailors did in those days. “No­body ever — it would’ve been to­tally for­eign to spend money on a ho­tel,” he says.

For­tu­nately, by the time I started sail­ing with him, he’d grad­u­ated from camp­ing to stay­ing with friends.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a jour­nal­ism de­gree from the Univer­sity of Rhode Is­land, he took a job at Sail mag­a­zine in Bos­ton. That’s where he re­ceived a mem­o­rable phone call of his own, from 470 World Cham­pion Dave Ull­man. “He said, ‘Ed, this is Dave Ull­man,’ and I was like: ‘Re­ally? Wow. Cool.’” Adams con­tin­ued: “‘I want you to come sail with me,’ he said. ‘We’re do­ing an Ad­mi­ral’s Cup cam­paign.’” Adams agreed on the spot be­fore Ull­man asked him how much he wanted to get paid. “I was like: ‘Paid? You’re gonna pay me to sail with you? Re­ally?’ I think it was $200 a day, which was a lot of money back then.”

Af­ter two years at Sail, Adams worked at Shore Sails for a year be­fore tak­ing another ed­i­tor’s job at He also teamed up with Olsen, and to­gether they won the 1987 Star Worlds. Thirty years later, Adams can still list his other sig­nif­i­cant class vic­to­ries with­out hes­i­ta­tion (though some were sailed with a dif­fer­ent crew): “Bac­ardi Cup twice, North Amer­i­cans twice, Kiel Week, pre-olympics twice.” In 1987 (and again in 1991), Ed was named Rolex Yachts­man of the Year.

Olsen and Adams also won the World Rank­ing, an em­pir­i­cal pre­de­ces­sor to World Sail­ing’s Sailor of the Year. “We were ranked No. 1

Prac­ti­cal Sailor.

in the world in all the Olympic events, which is pretty good,” he says mat­ter-of-factly.

That’s why, by 1990, the name “Ed Adams” was so in­tim­i­dat­ing to an as­pir­ing Snipe crew. He was both a well-re­spected sail­ing writer, and a world cham­pion. As his week­end team­mate, I was ac­cepted into the up­per ech­e­lons of the Snipe class — though I would soon learn that most com­peti­tors found Adams’ blis­ter­ing de­liv­ery and sin­gle-minded search for per­fec­tion a bit over the top. For me, only his fast pace re­quired any ad­just­ment.

Since my fa­ther is a per­fec­tion­ist too, Adams’ fo­cus and at­ten­tion to de­tail felt nat­u­ral. On and off the wa­ter at that first Snipe re­gatta, he took ev­ery piece of feed­back I dished out, ab­sorbed it, and then de­manded more: more of me, more of his equip­ment and, most of all, more of him­self. Of all the skip­per phrases I learned, “Lean out — can’t see” is the one I still hear in my head; clearly his hik­ing mus­cles were way bet­ter trained than mine. Not to men­tion his cus­tom hik­ing pants prob­a­bly fit bet­ter than my bor­rowed ones. He pushes lim­its, both his own and other peo­ple’s; it’s ac­tu­ally sur­pris­ing he’s had only two back surg­eries.

In spite of a brand-new boat and a shorter-than-ideal crew, we won that re­gatta. Then we got back in the van to race home, and Adams started dic­tat­ing a list of what we could’ve done bet­ter. This quest for per­fec­tion was both in­spir­ing and ex­haust­ing — I’d learned so much in three days of rac­ing, but there’s only so much a brain can ab­sorb in one week­end.

The les­sons con­tin­ued. When we blew a tire in Con­necti­cut and couldn’t budge the rusty jack, I learned how to drive a full-size van up onto its jack (a piece of knowl­edge I’ve gladly never used again). Once the spare was in­stalled and he handed over the keys for the last driv­ing shift, I picked up a new road-trip mantra: “In this van, we drive fast and take chances.”

When I fi­nally fell into bed at 4 a.m., I was too alert to sleep — still try­ing to ab­sorb it all.

The next phone call was a great com­pli­ment: an in­vi­ta­tion to team up with Adams for the sum­mer Snipe cir­cuit. (Maybe he hadn’t no­ticed I was shorter than promised?) Over the next few months of train­ing and rac­ing, I earned a grad­u­ate de­gree in one-de­sign com­pe­ti­tion; in ex­change, Adams got an ea­ger, de­pend­able, train­able crew. And along the way, we grad­u­ally be­came friends — though it took me a long time to re­al­ize how rare that was. As he puts it, “I’m not a real so­cia­ble per­son, and I don’t make friends that eas­ily.”

Our friend­ship even sur­vived the hum­ble pie of win­ning the con­so­la­tion se­ries at the 1990 Snipe Na­tion­als, im­me­di­ately af­ter we both learned a les­son about the dan­gers of his full-throt­tle ap­proach: In a qual­i­fy­ing se­ries with­out a drop race, don’t push the line so hard that you’re over early.

Shortly af­ter that dis­ap­point­ment, Adams and Olsen re­sumed work to­ward their ul­ti­mate goal: win­ning the next Star Olympic Tri­als. They’d gone into the 1988 Tri­als as the top-ranked Star team world­wide but went home empty-handed. In 1992, that his­tory re­peated it­self.

“You have a project, and you just work at it as hard as you can.” Adams shrugs when he re­counts this footnote in an oth­er­wise il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer. “Usu­ally I’ve been lucky, and they’ve turned out well. They haven’t al­ways turned out well.”

Af­ter the 1992 Tri­als, Adams sold his Star and went to work at Sail­ing World, be­fore tran­si­tion­ing to full-time pro­fes­sional sail­ing. “The mag­a­zine edit­ing … it’s more of an in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge. But at that point we had Michaela, and [my son] Luke was on the way … and I made quite a bit more money sail­ing than I did work­ing in the of­fice.”

Once he reached his mid-40s, he also be­gan ac­cept­ing coach­ing jobs. “I see guys my age try­ing to hang on [as pro sailors], and they’re sim­ply not as good as the young guys are. There are cer­tain things they can do bet­ter with their ex­pe­ri­ence, but a lot of things they can’t do as well. I de­cided I was go­ing to tran­si­tion out of it early.”

As a coach, Adams drives his sailors as hard as he’s al­ways driven him­self. On a prac­tice day just be­fore the 2004 Yngling Worlds, he bul­lied my team­mates and me into putting up the spin­naker in more wind than we re­ally could han­dle. Af­ter a big wipe­out that led to cut­ting away the spin­naker hal­yard, we made it safely back to shore — where he talked us through the valu­able les­sons we’d learned. A week later, we won a bronze medal. And it was as a coach that Adams fi­nally earned his ticket to the Olympics, help­ing the guy who beat him at the 1992 Tri­als, Mark Reynolds, win gold at the 2000 Games. “Mark’s very dis­ci­plined,” he says.

One of his fa­vorite sto­ries fea­tures Reynolds as a de­fend­ing gold medal­ist. At the 2001 Star Worlds in Mdem­b­lik, Hol­land, Adams (the U.S. Sail­ing Team coach at the time) was re­spon­si­ble for get­ting four U.S. teams out on the wa­ter to train to­gether. “I’m walk­ing around check­ing on ev­ery­body, and Mark’s say­ing, ‘I’m on sched­ule, I’m ready, I’m ready.’ And I started to re­al­ize that the other guys aren’t mak­ing enough progress to be in the wa­ter on time, so I start bug­ging ’em.”

Reynolds pulled his Star up to the hoist right on sched­ule, but the other three Amer­i­can teams were still do­ing boat work.

“And fi­nally I got mad,” Adams re­calls. “I walked over to Freddy Loof [of Swe­den], who was just start­ing his cam­paign. Freddy had all his tools on his deck. I said: ‘Hey Freddy, you want to go train­ing with Mark? Mark’s go­ing in the wa­ter right now.’ He lit­er­ally took ev­ery­thing and pushed it off the boat onto the ground, jumped into his clothes, tied a few knots, and launched his boat right af­ter Mark. And he won the worlds.” Seven years later, Loof also won a gold medal.

The mo­ral? “You gotta have some dis­ci­pline in your pro­gram,” says Adams, “or you can’t go any­where.”

Dis­ci­pline. A no-com­pro­mise quest for per­fec­tion. Adams has com­bined these two traits into a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in sail­ing — sup­ported all along by that one price­less and es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent.

“Do­ing well in the sport re­quires am­bi­tion,” he re­peats. “You have to have it. You can ac­quire it through life ex­pe­ri­ence, but if you don’t have it, it doesn’t mat­ter. It’s gotta come from the heart.”

Since that first sum­mer, I’ve racked up a lot of miles rac­ing with Adams in a va­ri­ety of one-de­signs (and ve­hi­cles). And even though I promised never to tell his kids the least-flat­ter­ing road-trip sto­ries, here’s a quick sum­mary of my all-time fa­vorite: Stuck in a Fri­day-af­ter­noon New York City traf­fic jam, Adams jumped out of our van and into the car in front of us to drive it through a par­tic­u­larly tight spot on the high­way — just to hurry the poor woman out of our way so we could race to the next re­gatta.

“All I re­ally think about pas­sion­ately is sail­ing,” he says. “I have been that way since I was 15 years old. I don’t know if it’s nor­mal or not; that’s just the way it is.”

About 10 years af­ter our first phone call, Adams and I were sit­ting side by side at a New­port bar when I fi­nally made a beer-in­duced con­fes­sion.

“The first time we talked, I lied to you,” I con­fessed. “Tom told me to tell you I was taller than I was.”

“I knew it!” he said, thump­ing his beer bot­tle on the bar. “When I first saw you, I knew you couldn’t re­ally be five-four.”

All was for­given, of course. He might have a hard time mak­ing friends, but he does a good job of hang­ing onto them. Which is why, 27 years later, I’m still glad I told the big lie. Q

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